Micah Goodman’s bestselling first book The Secrets of the Guide to the Perplexed (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, 2010) presented how engagement with traditional Jewish texts could help Israelis live better and more meaningful lives. After its publication Goodman emerged as a leading Israeli public intellectual. He continues in this capacity in Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War, tackling the issue of political polarization and the accompanying cessation of functional political debate in Israel.
Goodman identifies divergent attitudes concerning how Israel should deal with the territory seized from Jordan during the 1967 War as the key to its political polarization and political dysfunction. Left-wing Israelis refer to this territory as occupied and assert that Israel’s continued presence there is immoral, undemocratic, and corrupting, and that withdrawal from it offers Israel a chance at peace and a more stable place in the region and the world. Meanwhile, right-wing Israelis refer to this territory as Judea and Samaria and argue that Israel’s withdrawal from it will endanger Israel’s security, undermine the redemptive process, or both.
Rather than viewing these divergent positions as something that precludes constructive debate and improvement of Israeli and Palestinian lives, Goodman identifies fear about the future as the primary stumbling block. It has led Israelis to tightly seize hold of uncompromising ideological positions that provide them with a strong sense of identity and a sense of stability in a topsy-turvy world and it inhibits their ability to listen to each other. Therefore, Goodman pushes for Israelis to put aside their fear, actively engage with their ideological opponents’ positions, dispassionately examine the limitations of their own views, and pragmatically remediate the deleterious effects of Israel’s presence in the disputed territories while keeping Israel secure from both internal and external threats.
Goodman’s call for pragmatism is innovative because it challenges right-wing Israeli assertions that the Jewish religious tradition forbids territorial compromise and demands the whole Land of Israel’s settlement for the redemptive process’ advancement. In fact, Goodman not only cites esteemed religious authorities in support of territorial compromise, but he points to how Jewish tradition has eschewed zealotry for over 2,000 years and how his pragmatism has firm roots in the Jewish past. During the Second Temple period, two rival schools emerged that interpreted the oral law in radically different ways—Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. While the Talmud explains that both schools’ opinions were “words of the living God” (5) and equally correct, Beit Hillel’s positions became the basis for Jewish religious law. This came about, Goodman explains, because when members of Beit Hillel taught the oral law, they engaged respectively with Beit Shammai’s positions, always presenting them to their students and doing so before advancing their views. Sometimes this approach led them to accept their rivals’ positions. It was this willingness to risk one’s beliefs and sincerely listen to one’s opponent that led to Beit Hillel’s elevation. Consequently, Goodman calls on all left-wing and right-wing Israelis to emulate these ancient rabbis for the betterment of all Israeli Jews and Palestinians living in the disputed territories (Goodman neglects consideration of Palestinians in Gaza and Israel).
Although contemporary Israelis view the ideological rift dividing them as something that originated prior to Israel’s establishment, Goodman points to how the failure of both right and left-wing ideological visions birthed contemporary political dysfunction. On the right, Zionist thinker Vladimir Jabotinsky advocated for the same type of territorial maximalism subsequently embraced by the religious followers of Rabbis Avraham Yitzhak and Tzvi Yehuda Kook and their security-argument-spouting secular allies, but he strongly believed that it needed to be reined in through liberal policies, including the safeguarding of minority rights, and he would have objected to the illiberal treatment of the disputed territory’s Palestinian citizens. Unable to balance these two goals, secular right-wing leaders chose liberalism following the First Intifada, especially in the economic sphere, and displayed a readiness to cede territory. In contrast, religious right-wing ideologues made territorial maximalism the touchstone of their worldview and eschewed liberalism. Right-wing religious Israelis long agreed with this outlook, but the Gaza disengagement led most of them to abandon it. Most right-wing religious Israelis now acknowledge the state’s authority and its right to relinquish territory.
Meanwhile, the Zionist left initially strove to make Israel into a model socialist society, but, when this vision appeared unrealizable in the 1970s, it replaced vigorous pursuit of a Hebrew brotherhood among workers with zealous efforts to achieve peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. Yet Yasir Arafat’s rejection of a final settlement agreement and the Second Intifada’s outbreak shattered faith in the possible realization of this new vision, plunging the Israel left into intellectual crisis.
As Goodman depicts it, the totalizing ideologies that helped establish the Israeli state have run their course. Neither the right’s call for full control of the disputed territories nor the left’s call for complete withdrawal can provide total security and put Israeli fears to rest permanently. This is the Catch-67 of the book’s title. Therefore, these ideologies need to be set aside, so that Israelis can start working together to better their situation. In service of this goal, Goodman reframes the matter at hand. Arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved, he asserts that Israelis need to transform it from a potentially catastrophic problem into a chronic one they can manage. Looking to catalyze transformation, Goodman advances two plans—the partial-peace plan and the divergence plan—grounded in his nuanced position that “the territories are not occupied, but the Palestinian people are,” (104). Hence, he calls for increased autonomy for the disputed territory’s Palestinians and even Palestinian statehood there while portions of this territory remain under Israeli control to meet its security needs.
While the Palestinians, the international community, and many Israelis will find such ideas unsatisfactory, Goodman disregards this opposition, seeing these ideas as the basis for a broader Israeli consensus that would enable the country and its citizens to move forward together. As the Israeli government totters under the threat of dissolution, adoption of Goodman’s pragmatic approach might be in Israel’s best interest.
Philip Hollander is an instructor of modern Hebrew in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2022
Micah Goodman is President of Beit Midrash Yisraeli-Ein Prat. He is Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and the author of four best-selling books in Israel including Maimonides and the Book That Changed Judaism.
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